Cheree Flanagan volunteered with her husband Michael in Timor-Leste in 2005 and 2006 at Ahisaun, an NGO specialising in empowering young people with disability. In the lead up to our Newcastle Information Session on Saturday 12 May, Cheree has shared some thoughts on her time in the field.
Sometimes it’s not until you live away that you truly appreciate the opportunities and privileges, the beaches, parklands and relaxed lifestyle which make Newcastle such a great place to live.
With the power and optimism of youth, my husband and I set off from Newcastle 13 years ago to act on our dream of living and working in a “developing” country and maybe even helping to make the world a better place.
Palms Australia, the volunteering agency we applied through, had matched our skills and experience with the needs identified by a disability Non-Government Organisation in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste.
As we embarked on our adventure to Australia’s close neighbour (nonetheless, ranked the 43rd poorest country in the world) concerns were expressed by many of the well-wishers who farewelled us. To some degree we took these on board.
What we didn’t expect, however, was to be so quickly and warmly embraced by our host community.
Our time as development volunteers in Timor-Leste profoundly formed us and still influences our orientation to life and community over a decade later.
This life-changing experience was shaped by the development vision and support of Palms Australia.
Palms relies on a small team of professional staff backed up by dedicated volunteers to contribute in low-key, but profound ways, to global justice and peace. This grassroots orientation allows Palms to operate with minimal Australian government support in order to engage with communities seeking sustainable approaches to poverty reduction.
Palms recruits qualified and experienced volunteers willing to assist local people in developing countries to progress their own strengths and their own vital grassroots organisations. Ethical volunteerism, ‘doing with’, rather than ‘doing for’, can be just as powerful and sustaining as providing material aid.
Since its foundation in 1961, Palms has placed Australian volunteers for one to three year placements with nearly 300 partner organisations across 39 countries. In real terms, this commitment represents $220 million in value to communities their volunteers have served. This includes educating over 65,000 students and teachers, providing over 120,000 days of primary health services and mentoring over 2,000 people in trades and agriculture.
Living cross-culturally in developing countries has its challenges, but with the right focus on relationship building, as we soon realised, volunteers receive so much more from the experience than we could ever hope to give through our work.
In 2016, I returned to Timor-Leste as an Encounter (small group tour) facilitator for Palms, and had a tearful reunion with our Timorese host family from our volunteering days. I was moved to see a photo of us, taken during the baptism of their first child in our first week in Dili, displayed on their mantle piece. It made me truly realise that through its volunteer preparation and in-country support, Palms Australia creates long lasting and authentic relationships based on mutual development and care.
The experience of living in a community in a developing country helped us to realise and appreciate that more than its physical assets, Newcastle’s strong sense of community is what makes the Hunter a great place to live and return to.
Cheree Flanagan is hosting an overseas development volunteering information session on Saturday 12 May, 3-5pm at the Resistance Centre, 472 Hunter St, Newcastle. All welcome.
Don’t be put off by the light rail construction as Palms Australia, like Newcastle CBD is still “open for business”. You can find out more and RSVP for the information session by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling 02 9560 5333.